“How do you think your Jewish heritage impacts your vision of the world and politics?” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked last week at a town hall meeting ahead of the New Hampshire primaries. “It impacts me very profoundly,” he answered. “When I try to think about how I came to the views that I hold, there are two major factors… No. 1, I grew up in a family that didn’t have a whole lot of money.… And the second one is being Jewish.
On the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign trail, Sanders has been talking a lot about his Jewish heritage. A recent video shows him saying, “I’m very proud to be Jewish and look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.” It’s a stark contrast from the 2016 Democratic presidential candidacy race, when Sanders was seen by many to be downplaying his Jewishness. After winning New Hampshire that time around, he caught flak for describing himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money,” prompting the New York Times to run with the headline Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, But He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It.
Now he is talking about it. What changed?
Sanders offered an explanation of sorts last fall at the annual conference of the progressive American group J Street. “If there’s any group on Earth that should be trying to bring people together around a common and progressive agenda,” he argued, “it is the Jewish people.” No doubt, a significant number of American Jews, younger ones especially, have latched on to that message. Last Saturday night in New Hampshire, Jewish Sanders supporters held a Havdalah ceremony at a campaign office, after which one of them posted a video to Twitter of Jews singing and swaying together, along with the message, “We’ve spent the day knocking doors for Bernie, and as Jews, we will honour our values, defeat Trump and white nationalism, and build an America for all of us.”
But lots of people aren’t buying Sanders’ Jewish awakening, believing there is something else at play. After all, Sanders has railed against the Israeli occupation and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – “It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist,” he has said – and some of his most prominent supporters, including U.S. congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, as well as Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, have been correctly accused of spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He has also mused about conditioning American aid to Israel on its treatment of the Palestinians.
His detractors argue that Sanders is providing cover for progressive American Jews and a Democratic party that, certainly on its left wing, is moving away from Israel. Sanders has implied as much, noting, “It’s going to be very hard for anybody to call me, whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler, who spent time in Israel, an anti-Semite.”
Maybe so, but plenty of Jewish Democrats (along with many moderate Democrats) are clearly concerned about Sanders. A recent survey indicates only 11 per cent of Jewish Democrat voters rank him as their first choice for the presidential nomination, behind Joe Biden (the top pick at 31 per cent), Elizabeth Warren (20 per cent) and Pete Buttigieg (13 per cent). (The other Jewish Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Bloomberg, received just eight per cent). True, the Jewish vote is unlikely to make any difference in who wins the Democratic nomination, but if Bernie ultimately takes it, the first Jewish candidate for the American presidency will have to face the fact that a wide swath of the American Jewish community have a very hard time trusting him.